I love a good psychology article, especially when it absolves me of accountability in some way. So last month when I read a fascinating piece in the New York Times about Decision Fatigue, I was thrilled to understand why I take shortcuts in the afternoon and eat ice cream on the couch at night.

The article opens with a story from the legal profession, describing abnormalities in the parole decisions of a judge.

As the story put it, “the probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.”

And it wasn’t that the type of cases varied from morning to afternoon either. Rather, psychologists are beginning to understand that we only have a finite capacity to make decisions and exercise willpower during the day. This phenomenon is known by psychologists by the very cool name “ego depletion”. As the day wears on, our mental muscles weaken and we get lazy:

Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price.

Now, as providers of cloud-based legal practice management software, we’re normally all about the cloud. But not when it comes to the mind!

However, the situation is not without hope. Apparently, decision fatigue can be stayed by eating, which is bad news for dieters. Your brain needs glucose to process information and work optimally, and the way you get glucose is by consuming food at regular intervals. I’m not going to spoil the article, but you gotta find out what happens to the parolees once the judges began taking breaks for snacks.

Another way to keep decision fatigue at bay is to make less decisions. By doing so you conserve willpower. For example, if you plan your exercise schedule a week in advance, you decrease the odds that you won’t have will the power to exercise, since you’ll be on autopilot.

…Studies show that people with the best self-control are the ones who structure their lives so as to conserve willpower. They don’t schedule endless back-to-back meetings. They avoid temptations like all-you-can-eat buffets, and they establish habits that eliminate the mental effort of making choices. Instead of deciding every morning whether or not to force themselves to exercise, they set up regular appointments to work out with a friend. Instead of counting on willpower to remain robust all day, they conserve it so that it’s available for emergencies and important decisions.

Read more about decision fatigue in the New York Times.